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King Arthur, A Dramatick Opera. Music by Henry Purcell, libretto by John Dryden. (1691) The New York City Opera, Lincoln Center.
It’s hard to imagine a more potent team than Henry Purcell and John Dryden, one the greatest composers England produced, and the other one of her finest poets. But the fruits of their collaboration (of which this opera is probably the greatest) are not well known. Mark Morris’s recreating of this work as a modernized masque may change that. The music is splendid, the lyrics warming, and the presentation is filled with wit and humor. There’s nothing not to love about it, although with the whole reduced to a performance time under two hours, most of the audience was certainly left looking for more. They get two hours of musical rapture, minutes to savor and in which to be lost. Was it this music that Dryden thought back to when he wrote at Purcell’s death?
Drink in [the] Music with delight,
And list’ning and silent, and silent and list’ning,
And list’ning and silent obey.
This work isn’t exactly what we think of as an opera, and neither was the original. What Purcell and Dryden developed back in the waning seventeenth century was an amalgam–Dryden authored a play in five acts, and Purcell composed a series of arias and some theatrical music to go with it. Morris has engaged in some radical retrenchment. The play is simply gone. What survives is Purcell’s music and Dryden’s lyrics. In fact, even King Arthur himself is gone, together with his tiresome recitations of battles won as the war to unite the British fatherland came to a focus on the garden province of Kent. One of Morris’s comic inventions is to represent the absent King Arthur in the opera using his name as a crown that gets dragged from scene to scene.
No offense to Dryden, the consummate poet of his day, but Morris’s solution is just the thing for a modern audience. The simple fact is that Purcell’s work is approachable and Dryden’s takes time and effort. In fact the King Arthur that Dryden presents is something of a surprise. He would hardly be recognized by today’s theater goer. He’s not the figure of the Arthurian romance, but rather the soldier-king bent on reuniting his land, the Arthur of Geoffrey of Monmouth. We get a sense of that in the first act, as Arthur’s men battle the wicked Saxon King Oswald, and the lyrics introduce us to sacrifice in honor of Wotan (“Honour prizing,/Death despising,/Fame acquiring/By Expiring.”)
But the producer’s knife also transforms a work which was first designed as an act of patronage into something more universal. Dryden first took the theme up on the twenty-fifth anniversary of the coronation of Charles II, but the monarch expired before it could be finished. Shortly after his death, Charles’s illegitimate son, the Duke of Monmouth, led a rising which was brutally put down. So Dryden needed to adapt the work to meet the political requirements of his new patron. The work’s theme was infused with the tragedy of the day and the still waking memories of the Civil War. For Dryden, anyone who challenged the lawful succession was “resolv’d to ruin or to rule the state.” Dryden preaches the value of a united kingdom, and the danger of the usurper, or worse still, those who call for Republic (in the language of the seventeenth century, “Commonwealth”.)
But, when to Sin our byast Nature leans,
The careful Devil is still at hand with means;
And providently Pimps for ill desires:
The Good Old Cause, reviv’d, a Plot requires,
Plots, true or false, are necessary things,
To raise up Common-wealths and ruine Kings.
King Arthur in Dryden’s text is still part of the romantic notion, but it is the political part. The notion of the king bound with the land, a sort of archetype of a good monarch who keeps the feuding factions at bay. And all the more reason for Arthur to quit the stage. We live, after all, in an age of republics. Arthur is a memory. His crown at center stage is more than enough.
Some of this survives even when Morris leaves most of the copy on the stage’s floor. It fills the bookends of the opera, the opening and close. And it also is set to the best of Purcell’s music, particularly the aria “Fairest Isle,” which is the best of this, or of any other Purcell opera.
For Dryden and Purcell these themes were a vital political statement, an affirmation of the monarchy and of the union of the land and the crown in the person of the king. Both Dryden and Purcell lived from the king’s benefice, but there is no cause to doubt the sincerity of their views. They really believed in monarchy, and they feared anything that would revive the troubles.
And allegiance to the monarchy transfers quickly to a fervent and for the period surprising expression of patriotism. The age of Dr. Arbuthnot and the rise of John Bull is, of course, just around the corner.
Morris has a good deal of fun with this business. Purcell or Dryden wouldn’t have offended their royal audience in such a way, but who’s to say they would have opposed such a transfiguration for a future audience? Both had a fine sense of humor. Morris follows the path that City Opera performances have taken for many years now: he uses humor; he takes the Baroque stuffings out of the work and fills it with laughter. The singer of “Fairest Isle” comes on stage wearing a tutu and a lilac-colored cardigan, and in the patriotic finale the chorus appears in swimsuit and yacht attire, swirling streamers–as if cheering on the home team at an athletic event.
But King Arthur is not all patriotism and high politics. At its core it is a story of love. Dryden mockingly gives us a “frozen genius,” and Morris makes the logical leap to modernity by placing him in a deep freeze (i.e., in a moden kitchen appliance), located midstage. This passage, in act III, is one of the best demonstrations of Purcell’s dramatic genius. He gives a chromatic presentation of “the frost,” of a world trapped in ice and cold. It works well, and it pours just as the ice melts, giving way to a springtime torrent of dance.
The choreography of this work also manages many turns. It mocks and laughs, it recalls the high Baroque artifice of the original, but ties it to modernity. Most importantly, the movement seems always a perfect expression of Purcell’s music. A modern adaptation perhaps, but worthy of the original.
This is a very modern King Arthur, attuned to modern tastes and stamina. But it remains faithful to the spirit at the heart of the work that Purcell and Dryden crafted. Today, indeed, who could doubt that they would make a entrepreneurial duo, committed both to a high sense of art and to pleasing their audience? That these two goals can be united is the ultimate message of King Arthur.
More from Scott Horton:
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“Shelby is waiting for something. He himself does not know what it is. When it comes he will either go back into the world from which he came, or sink out of sight in the morass of alcoholism or despair that has engulfed other vagrants.”